At SpotOn London I went to the “Juggling jobs. Balancing a research career with SciComm—is it a policy issue?” session. You can read a description on the session page. The hashtag was #solo12jobs on Twitter.
During the session Athene Donald, who was on the panel, singled out chemists as being particularly bad at outreach and I tweeted:
Athene later replied:
Obviously I don’t want to misquote anyone. All the SpotOn sessions were recorded so I listened again and at 08:28 Athene says:
The downside is, in some places, is that certain professors or lecturers or whatever, group leaders, I’ll call them, don’t encourage their students and postdocs to get out.
That there is, in some places, the attitude—personally I particularly blame the chemists, and I don’t think we’ve got any chemists [here?, audience laughter], but they don’t expect to allow their students to go and do any non-lab based work at all, be that training courses or be it outreach and I think that is appalling. And one of the things I try and do in my own university is to make sure that that gets wiped out.
I can see how my tweet looked like Athene said that the outreach chemists do is of bad quality, but what I really meant is what she said—that it’s bad that some chemists don’t do any outreach. Apologies, Athene.
I offered (at 50:38) a rather ineloquent defence, citing Exscitec and Professor Lord Robert Winston’s Reach Out lab where many chemists in my department do outreach.
Later on Athene does ask if it’s because synthetic chemistry is particularly bench-heavy and at the time I kind of mumbled some agreement, mainly that I can only work in the lab 9–6ish in case I have an accident, not leaving much time for anything else. But really that’s ridiculous and just requires effictive time management. Regardless, this all seems a bit anecdotal.
At 51:51, somebody (I think it may have been Eva Amsen) says to Athene:
I don’t think it’s a chemistry thing per se, it’s just you know the wrong chemists.
Absolutely. You get rubbish supervisors in all disciplines. Yes, it does seem that some supervisors, particularly in organic chemistry, do chain their students to the fume hood. However it’s unfair to blame all chemists for the actions of a few dinosaurs.
I posted this last night then pulled it again about 10 minutes later as I thought it was too negative and unfairly critical of Athene. But Google Reader had already crawled my RSS feed and it ended up on Twitter… So I’ve reposted it and want to end it on a more positive note.
I can think of one of these dinosaur PIs at Imperial. I’m sure no one thinks their behaviour is acceptable, but they’re a “big name” chemist. They’re (superficially) good for the department and I guess the students tolerate them because they think their supervisor is good for their career—ironic considering the skills developed doing outreach might be more useful.
Departments and faculties should change the rules to require outreach and loosen the grip of these PIs on their students. In my DTC, a small amount of outreach is compulsory and more is encouraged. I think the decentralised, cross-department nature of the DTC and multiple supervisor system also makes it more difficult for bad PIs to stop their students from doing outreach.
Other students need to tell these students that it’s unacceptable for their supervisors to behave like this. Staff need to do the same.
Blimey, I made this molehill into a bit of a mountain! Twitter, eh?